In praise of moderation

In praise of moderation

Max L. Kleinman

Max Kleinman of Fairfield is the CEO emeritus of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.

In today’s society attempts at civil discourse all too often descend into civil discord. One of the most important factors leading to this sense of dysfunction is that too much of how many of us view the world is through a binary lens.

When the late Tim Russert called presidential elections on television, the color chosen for states that voted Republican was red. For Democrats, it was blue. So now a state like New Jersey, with the most ethnically diverse mix in the country, is solidly blue, and Texas, with a large Hispanic population, is red. All too often I hear states cast off as being either too blue or red not meriting further discussion of whatever issue is under consideration. This leads to further polarization or rejection.

Then there’s the divide between the left and right and extremes on both sides on how to frame the critical issues facing us today.

There’s voter suppression versus checking on the qualifications of voters; allowing open borders versus racism against people of color; illegal immigrants versus the undocumented; Israel as a democracy versus an apartheid nation; Republicans are all Trumpers versus Democratic disdain for Israel; systemic racism versus a society steadily improving; victimized Jews suffering hatred versus being part of the white hierarchy; they won’t replace us versus a multi-ethnic democracy; federalism versus states’ rights; freedom of speech versus micro-aggressions; equality of opportunity versus equal outcomes.

And the list goes on.

What are some of the factors that provide some context to explain our current polarization?

We can’t ignore the impact of Donald Trump on our body politic. His populism bordering on racism and rejection of a fair election has created fissures not only within the Republican party but also in the larger society.

The rapid industrial displacement and demographic changes brought through immigration and greater fertility of people of color have generated, among some whites, the paranoia of “replacement theory” and concomitant racism and antisemitism, echoing the nativism of past generations. This has led to increased violence by white nationalists focusing attacks on blacks and Jews, who are seen as funding this replacement.

Then there’s the extreme positions on the left fostered by post modernism and its critical theory offshoots. As Frances Fukuyama writes in his recently published “Liberalism and Its Discontents”:

“In this reading, racism is not seen as an attribute of individuals, or a policy problem to be solved. Rather, it is a condition that is said to pervade all American institutions and consciousness … it reflects an underlying power structure of white supremacy that is embedded in language and that hides itself even from progressive people who believe themselves to be anti-racist.”

That’s why seminars to “purge” white people from their innate hidden biases and racism are so popular on college campuses and corporations. It also helps explain why Jews “as whites” and Israel as a “white colonial state,” despite its Sephardic majority, does not evoke sympathy from these quarters or even fosters hatred for the Jewish State.

The ancients have valuable lessons for us to learn during these troubled time. Moderation in our daily lives and in our politics will hasten the good life.

In the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus, where the latter flew too close to the sun and his wings melted, Daedalus mourned that his son didn’t fly the middle course” The Greek poet Cleobulus wrote “Moderation is best.” Socrates wrote that we should be taught “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” Aristotle’s formulation of moderation was through his “golden mean,” reaching the cherished middle to resolve disputes.

In our own tradition, Ecclesiastes admonished his audience to “be not righteous over much” and to “be not over much wicked.” In his Mishneh Torah, Rambam also espouses taking the middle course. We are also taught that we must navigate between the Yetzer Tov and Harah, the evil and good inclinations each of us face in our daily lives .

Writing about the polarization endemic during the late 19th century Gilded Age, political scientist Robert Putnam writes in “The Upswing” that reformers sought to build bridges across the political spectrum to achieve the great success they accomplished. They “challenge us to push beyond the idea that silencing or expelling certain elements of our society, punishing offenders, or replacing one faction’s dominance with another’s, will restore the moral and cultural health of our nation. We must undertake a reevaluation of our shared values, asking ourselves what personal privileges and rights we might be willing to lay aside” to achieve a more perfect union.

Our system of government is based on checks and balances so that one branch can’t overreach. The writers of the Federalist Papers , Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, recognized the need for balance. They wanted a republic diverse and large enough so that one faction wouldn’t dominate, but with enough in common to maintain the overall health of the whole nation.

As we approach Independence Day ,let’s get beyond our binary way of thinking and move toward building bridges to reach compromises to help solve our nation’s problems.

Let’s honor what’s inscribed on our coins dangling in our pockets: E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many One.

Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.

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